"This is all bogus."
They were sitting on either side of a table, Val's photos held between them like playing cards. Eclectic furniture was clustered around the walls; one could guess at the real age of the room despite the new coat of varnish. The Caretaker's duster was hanging on a coatrack, so he and Anton were dressed nearly the same, the boy having taken to wearing a black hoodie, except with the hood hanging on his back. The old house still preserved the chill of winter inside.
"None of these symbols have any real power," continued the Reaper. "There must be some other cause."
Anton frowned. "But all the affected buildings here were marked like this in the living world."
"And all of them were falling apart," pointed out the dark one.
"So how are they causing..."
Anton's voice trailed off as they heard the door. The veiled woman stormed in and plopped down into a chair. She didn't say a word, but instead proceeded to rummage into her handbag with shaky hands. Nobody was with her.
"No news from him?" asked the Caretaker mildly.
Instead of answering, she threw a letter on the table. It was written in blue ink on heavy, cream-colored paper, and came in an ornate envelope.
"May I?" He opened it and read aloud.
My dear Y.,
I figured out how they're doing it! ... I think. Going to consult with an acquaintance; they've had a number of similar cases up in the mountains. We might just be able to help each other. You know...
...My, it's late. I'd better board my train; somebody might be watching me.
"It was sent the day before we last met," she explained.
"No word since then?"
The woman shook her head.
"Does he know about the New System?"
"I'm not sure."
"What can they do to a Grim Reaper anyway?" interjected Anton.
She just stared at the boy while the Caretaker grumbled something unintelligible.
Brakes squealed and whined at length while the train lurched to a standstill. Seconds later, Anton jumped down to the platform, a row of uneven concrete slabs. Most of the cars had already passed the waystation; this wasn't a planned stop.
He surveyed the surroundings. Back towards the city, the empty tracks seemed to stretch on forever. Off to the side, a dirt road climbed the space between desolate hills. Far ahead, however, he could see a plume of black smoke, and occasionally the flicker of flames. The boy ran that way without waiting for the adults, while other passengers leaned out the windows, their conversations buzzing over his head.
Thick smoke made it hard to see, and the air trembled with heat as well, but he caught glimpses of another locomotive in front of their train, and was that the burning wreck of a small sedan? A goth girl, slightly older than Anton, was standing there staring, and a pink clamshell phone lay broken at her feet. He followed her gaze to a mangled body trapped in the pyre. A body dressed in the same clothes...
"I don't understand," she muttered with trembling lips.
Anton didn't know what to answer at first. Then:
"You died," he said with a dry mouth.
"Worst pick-up line ever," she said among tears, and turned to look at him. "Aren't you a little young for a Grim Reaper?"
The boy examined himself in surprise. He tended to forget about the way he dressed now: black hoodie, t-shirt with a generic Death Metal motif, massive black boots and a silvery hourglass on a chain at his belt.
"Well, I'm not, really..."
Sirens could be heard approaching through the crackling fire. The entire scene suddenly appeared infinitely distant, like a mirage.
"...We'd better go now," he finished, extending a hand. She grabbed it, and they ran together towards the rearmost cars. It wasn't until the train set into motion again that she broke down crying.
"You're holding up well everything considered," said Anton, looking more carefully at the girl. She was a little taller than him as well, with a long, serious face framed in a crown of black hair. A jumper dress with fingerless gloves up to her elbows and tall boots with many straps completed the picture.
"You're making fun of me." She glanced over her shoulder at the two Reapers, who were walking a good distance behind them as the group navigated a tangle of medieval streets up the mountainside. It was sunny, but windy, and chatty pedestrians mingled among well-maintained gothic architecture.
"Not at all. My first night here? I spent it crying."
"Oh dear. I hope you're sleeping better now?"
He shook his head. "There is no sleep in the Afterlife. Though sometimes you can forget yourself for a while."
She made a face.
"It's not so bad..." He paused. "Did you feel it?"
"What?" she asked, then looked around with a shiver.
"That." He lowered his voice. "We should..."
The adults were already next to them. "That way," said the Caretaker, pointing at a narrow alley off to the side. They piled up in the opening just as the rhytmic cadence of boots exploded around the corner.
It was a troop of about thirty, wearing the New System uniform, only now they had steel helmets and truncheons. Other pedestrians were hurrying to get out of the way as the thugs marched up to an imposing manor with a strange sigil carved in stone above the main entrance and filed through the gate.
"That symbol looks familiar," pointed out Anton while he leaned out to see better.
"Get back here!" snapped a voice from further up the alley. "They'll be watching!"
The boy whirled in place. It took him a moment to recognize the portly old man waving a cane further up the alley.
"Mr. W.!" Anton ran past his companions and nearly hugged their missing friend. "What happened to you?"
The bearded man leaned heavily on his cane and puffed. He was wearing drill trousers instead of his usual suit, and a vest of the same material on top of a white shirt. A wide-brimmed fedora, also white, shaded his face. It wasn't enough to hide his palor, or the big bruise high on his cheek, which his sunglasses didn't quite cover.
"I'll be fine. Who's your new friend?"
Y. looked at Anton. Anton looked at the girl. She stammered.
"I... I'm Anne, sir. Er... nice to meet you?"
She extended a hand, which W. kissed. The girl looked even more confused.
"We picked her up on the way here," explained Y. dryly.
The man examined Anne inscrutably. "New arrival, then? Very well..."
A cloud covered the sun, and he waved them into a side alley. "...now let's get out of here."
They scurried deeper into the maze, new alleys seemingly appearing in front of them as they walked. Anton looked back thrice, and every time the path they had taken was no longer there. From the rearguard, the Caretaker waved to him reassuringly.
"I walked right into a trap," recounted W. while they huddled into his tiny rented room, across the street from a stream that gurgled happily in its lowered bed. "They have eyes everywhere. At the train station. At the post office."
"What about your acquaintance?" asked the Caretaker.
The old man shook his head. "He's a shadow now. Either I've been away for too long, or else..."
"So much for your investigation."
"On the contrary. I found the center of things."
"You know who's behind this, then." Y.'s was a statement, not a question.
"Ah, but you know him as well, dear. Didn't you recognize the crest on his house?"
Anton snapped his fingers. "Val's photos," he told the Caretaker. The Reaper nodded glumly.
"So you know this... person?" asked Anne.
"Oh yes. We should have taken him down a long time ago."
"We may yet succeed," puffed W. "But first we need to get ourselves home."
Anne rubbed her arms. "How are we going to get past them?"
They were gathered under an awning, looking across an open plaza to the guards patrolling the train station. The pavement had been dug up, and rain had turned the entire area into a swamp, making traffic all but impossible.
"Why don't we simply walk out of town?" asked Y.
"We tried, remember?" pointed out the Caretaker. "The roads curve back on themselves."
"So, let's just fly past the blockade." suggested Anton.
"Anne can't. Besides, you wouldn't get far."
"Then we're trapped?"
"Not necessarily," grinned his mentor, "night is coming. Watch!"
Off to the side, past a decorative fence, an alley bordered by lamp posts led up to a little palace, now mostly dark. As daylight dwindled, the shape of the building faded against the sky until it was no longer visible. The twin rows of lamps seemed to just go on and on.
"Impressive," stated Y.
They hurried around one corner of the plaza, while the rain subsided, then stopped entirely. Suddenly, the only noise on the empty streets was that of their steps, and the train station guards started shouting. Several ventured out to catch up with them, braving the ankle-deep mud. W.'s eyes went wide. He was huffing and puffing, his cane slipping on the wet cobblestones. Anton ached to just lift into the air, but stayed back to help; it occurred to him that he had never seen the old man use any powers.
The gate in the fence was in sight now, and they crossed it while their pursuers were still stumbling through puddles of water. Then two more guards emerged from the darkness in front of them. Anne tripped and nearly fell into their arms.
Then she grabbed one of them and threw him over her shoulder. The man hit the pavement with a big wet thud. Somehow, his truncheon ended up in Anne's hand. She promptly smashed it in the other thug's face, and he lost footing as well.
Their comrades were already outside the gate.
"Run," said Y. She turned and lifted her purse, not ten meters along the escape route. But when cold mist started rolling in, the distance appeared to grow. Soon, the uniformed men were little more than shadow puppets on a moving screen. As the fugitives ran and the streetlamps on either side grew further apart, the scene faded into the night. They were alone on a road that meandered endlessly in either direction.
"They'll be after us now."
In the cruel sunlight that followed summer rain, the open air mall looked even more dilapidated than usual. Anton and his mentor were sitting on one side of a table; Anne and Y., on the other. Now and then, the dead passing them by would slow down in their listless shuffle to stare with empty eyes.
"I don't understand," complained Anne. "Why can't we just go to, er, a higher power?"
"The New System isn't breaking any rules, as far as we can prove," explained the Caretaker.
"What about major interference with the living?" piped his female counterpart. "If W.'s right..."
"How's W. anyway?" asked Anton quickly.
"Recovering. He's off showing your living friend's photographs to certain people."
Anne kicked the boy under the table. "Why don't you ask me how I am?"
He blushed. "How've you been, Anne?"
"Dead!" she grinned. "Y.'s been showing me around. Oh, and your friend Mrs. Varga asked me to be her assistant at the school."
"She's not my friend, exactly..." Anton looked at the Caretaker. "No offense, but she's kind of creepy."
"And I'm not?" he smirked.
The boy gulped.
It was Y. who broke the silence again. "What's our next move?"
The Caretaker pondered the question. "We need to figure out their scheme. And find allies."
She nodded briskly and got up. "We'll be on our way, then."
"Y... Take care."
The house had too many doors, and not all of them led someplace sane, or to the same place every time for that matter. Anton would sometimes go from room to room, searching for -- he couldn't say what. Crates full of broken toys in a dusty closet. Jars of pickled goodies on the shelves in a narrow balcony, from which only the backs of other houses could be seen. A master bedroom occupied in its entirety by a magnificent bed: always made, never used. Only the boy's room stayed in one place and changed contents instead. One day it was rows of books stuffed into every nook and cranny, so many that they dimmed the lights. The next, an old radio with non-working knobs that would murmur soothing melodies of its own accord.
The Caretaker had returned home early to slide quietly along the twisted corridor connecting the various parts of the house. That meant he was troubled. In the end, Anton's curiosity got the better of him.
"What's wrong?" he called, the words ringing hollow between the walls.
His dark mentor spun slowly around. There didn't seem to be anything under his hood and duster. A low growl came out of that nothingness. Then he stepped into a beam of light.
"A street attacked me today. Never heard of anything like it before."
He sounded tired, puzzled and frustrated. Anton thought of something to say, then the entrance door slammed and they raced each other down the stairs to see who it was.
Y. stood tensely in the middle of the living room.
"Anne hasn't returned from the school,", she said abruptly. "I stopped by on the way here. Mrs. Varga is gone as well."
"Maybe they went home together. Old people need help with everything."
She shook her head. "There was no trace of them leaving."
"You can't sniff out everything," the Caretaker reminded her gently. He sighed. "Tell you what, let's go look again together."
She spun on her heels and started for the door. Anton moved to follow.
"Not you." The Caretaker placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Sorry, but I need you to stay behind this time. If Anne is in trouble, she may try to come here."
"It's not like I'm going alone."
Anton watched from the window long after the two Reapers had turned a corner. Then he wandered around the ground floor, flipping the light switches that cropped up in every corner at dusk. Most of them didn't work, and those that did helped little: the lightbulbs were invariably underpowered. It wasn't doing his mood any good.
Only when lightning flashed outside did the boy realize how late it was. He looked out the window again: the sky was clear. A suspicion made him step out. The flashes were coming from the ground. And he was pretty sure that way was the school.
Anton ran as fast as he could through the onsetting gloom.
The school building was unlocked, and Anton didn't question his good luck. There was barely any light left when he snuck inside, but he was fairly certain the sprawling courtyard was deserted.
Within, it was very quiet, and everything looked much older than it did by daylight. The boy had no idea where to start looking, so he settled for following the same itinerary as last time. The top floor was just as empty as the rest. On a whim, he took the stairs again, and this time they continued upwards beyond the point where the roof should have been.
This part of the building looked even older than the rest. He climbed for a long time, past locked doors facing random directions, until he reached one that opened onto a dark corridor. Voices and a beam of light came from the first room along it, which smelled like a doctor's office. Anton came closer and listened.
"This plan of yours better work, Klaus."
"Don't worry, Papp. It will work better than the hare-brained scheme we've been running so far."
"Be careful whom you say that around."
"Why, truth hurts? We've been enriching that living offspring of our esteemed leader, while all we got was more shadows to take care of."
"But don't you see? That's the point."
"More work for ourselves?"
"Precisely! The dead will be flocking to us for protection."
The second voice grumbled. "So far they seem more afraid of us than the shadows. And that Reaper has been pretty good at mopping things up."
Anton inched his way to a better position. The landing creaked under his foot, and the two men were quiet for a moment.
"Well, we sent him on a merry chase, didn't we?" Papp's voice sounded awfully smug.
"There's also that nosy teacher..."
"Heh. She won't be bothering us anymore. I... persuaded her to stay out of our way."
The answer came muffled, among quiet shuffling noises. "That just leaves the boy, then."
Anton held his breath. Just in time to hear a door opening behind him.
A man in a lab coat blocked his way back to the stairs. He had a syringe in his hand.
"Hold him, Papp."
Strong arms grabbed the boy from behind. He struggled, and Papp swore. But he didn't let go, and Anton could only stare at the advancing needle. Lightning, he remembered. How did the Caretaker do it? He focused, fighting his panic. Only a few piddly sparks jumped from his fingertips, but the man named Klaus jumped back with a strangled cry.
"Brat!" he spat, and threw his instrument. Anton felt a painful jab in his side. As his world began to grow dark, he briefly felt like being tightly wrapped in a twisted bedsheet.
The Internet Cafe was as noisy as ever, but that just meant nothing was out of place, Val told himself as he watched his friend descend on his mouse and keyboard like a hawk. The man paused at one point to gobble down a big glass of soda, then clicked and typed some more.
"I thought you were being paranoid, but check this out! All those places you spotted last time were just bought by this one guy."
Val leaned forward, the slice of pizza in his hand dangling dangerously over the nearby printer. "He must be rich."
"He is. Made a fortune in real estate speculations twenty years ago. But he got really good deals, too."
"All the former owners were complaining about ghosts, curses, suspect suicides and so on. But only in the past few months."
"Really!" Val looked at the photo on the monitor again. It showed an old man, tall and thin, standing very straight with an unpleasant expression on his face. A name was written underneath: Paul Provost.
"Where have I seen that name before?" mused Val. "Wait... wasn't he the guy with the sect you told me about?"
"Can't be... that was nearly two centuries ago." Click, click. "What do you know, you're right. Same last name... they even look much the same."
"Hm." Val bit into his rapidly cooling pizza and chewed slowly.
His friend turned his chair to face him. "Val... I don't know what you're planning to do, but please don't make any more waves. I heard what happened last time."
Val patted him on the shoulder.